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The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance

by Catherine Fletcher

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A courtesan named Angela del Moro (La Zaffetta) might have been the model for Titian’s sensuous masterpiece Venus of Urbino. She is also the subject of Il trentuno della Zaffetta (The Thirty-one of the Zaffetta), a poem that alludes to her gang-rape by 31 men. As Catherine Fletcher makes clear in The Beauty and the Terror, her engaging history of the Renaissance, brutality is often the companion of beauty.

Sometimes, in this wide-ranging account, brutality is simply accompanied by more brutality. Fletcher’s story is one of poisonings, strangulation, stabbings, men hung by their testicles and a torture whereby victims had their feet stripped of skin and doused in salt and vinegar. If you thought the Renaissance was all about beautiful pictures and the “rediscovery” of Classical writing, you are quite wrong. What Fletcher wants us to see is an era of corruption, violence and exploitation.

The Beauty and the Terror dismantles our assumptions about the Renaissance with the precision of a wheellock arquebus (a type of handgun that played a key role in conflicts of the period). Fletcher, who is professor of history at Manchester Metropolitan University, uses the term Renaissance guardedly. The concept suggests that what came before it was darkness, and that the “Renaissance” grew out of the ground like a mushroom. This plainly isn’t true. As she notes, many Latin texts important to the period had been copied and circulated in medieval Europe, especially in the ninth century.

The books subtitle is An Alternative History of the Renaissance, but it is maybe better described as a history of the Italian Wars, a series of conflicts from 1494 to 1559 in which various European powers battled for supremacy over the republics and principalities scattered around Italy. Fletcher doesn’t confine herself just to events on the peninsula, however. She examines the influence of the region right across the globe, from the Mameluke Empire to the New World.

The chapter on the conquest of the New World is terrifying and fascinating. Italian finance, particularly Genoan finance, was instrumental in transatlantic colonisation. Christopher Columbus was a Genoan, and his crew included Venetians and sailors from Venice’s Greek colonies. But the Genoan context is key: the republic had a long history of enslaving people from the Black Sea area and bringing them to Italy to work as domestic slaves.

This hideous expertise would become crucial. Church (or “canon”) law technically forbade slavery, but permitted it if the captives were detained in a just war or if they contravened “natural law”. As a result, accounts of the peoples of the New World described cannibalism and sexual deviance as a way of justifying their enslavement. By the 1520s it was reported that the 1m-strong population of Jamaica and Hispaniola had shrunk to 7,000 due to the savagery of the colonialists and the introduction of disease.

The story of slavery lurks in the background of much of Fletcher’s story. Lisa del Giocondo, aka the Mona Lisa, was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, who was probably a slave trader. In the 1480s and 1490s, he brought enslaved people, mostly women, to Florence for baptism. Some were as young as 12. Lisa’s enigmatic smile takes on darker associations when the painting is put into context.

The Beauty and the Terror is an ambitious, multifocal book, encompassing more than 150 years. It moves chronologically, with chapters on geopolitical events interleaved with thematic ones on subjects such as pornography, the Jewish ghetto, printing, and the Reformation and its effects. The cast of characters is large and particular figures appear and recede, only to reappear later. Readers must be as alert as Machiavellian courtiers.

Fletcher’s layered approach has great advantages. It means that this is not a history of prominent individuals. Later ages have tended to focus on the contributions of single (invariably male) “geniuses”, forgetting that major events are rarely brought about by individuals and that artistic production is often collaborative. Raphael headed a group of deputies; Michelangelo brought a team of Florentine craftsmen to Rome to work alongside him on the Sistine Chapel.

Fletcher’s method also means she can shine a light on figures often forgotten in conventional histories. She paints a graphic picture of the lives of ordinary people in besieged cities, eating cats, dogs and even rats while wealthy fellow citizens ate well. She also showcases the contribution of women throughout the period — from the “Renaissance Virago” Caterina Riario Sforza, who led an occupation of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome to secure her family’s property while heavily pregnant, to the celebrated poet Vittoria Colonna.

Fletcher’s final chapter probes how we came to understand the Renaissance as we do. It was in the 19th century, an era of European imperialism, that the idea took hold. People saw the Renaissance as a glorious model for their own world-view. While we no longer promote colonialism, the idea of the “Renaissance” has stuck. As of 2019, Italy had more inscriptions (many of them Renaissance sites) in the Unesco World Heritage list than any other country, narrowly beating China, a country 30 times its size. What is at stake when we remember the period, and what might we learn from a more nuanced view?

Powerful women in the Renaissance could be every bit as ruthless as their male counterparts. When Caterina Riario Sforza, ‘the Renaissance Virago’, heard of the murder of her second husband, her revenge was brutal, and included the death of one conspirator’s five-year-old son. A chronicle of the time also claimed that she and the duchess of Ferrara were so ‘entertained’ by the story of a man sentenced to burning at the stake for the anal rape of a woman that they pardoned him.

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